I did an extended interview about writing autobiographical non-fiction with writing coach Lisa Tener.
Here’s the pre-interview:
Lisa: Greg, I know we’re going to cover this in more detail on our call, but what are some of the factors that make a best-selling memoir, like Eat, Pray, Love?
Greg: My theory is that the major factor that made it such a publishing phenomenon is that it embodied a compound fantasy. 1) That Gilbert had the house and relationship to begin with. 2) That she was willing to walk out. 3) To chuck it all and just go traveling (which is a fantasy because, she got paid to write the book so she wasn’t really chucking it all: she was doing a job plus getting to eat in Italy, pray in India and find love again).
Also, getting featured on Oprah. That really helps sell books.
Lisa: It seems to me that humor is a factor in all the bestsellers from Eat Pray Love to Running with Scissors to The Glass Castle. Especially when writing about the horrific, these authors transport us with humor. Why do you think humor is important in memoir?
Greg: Three reasons:
One is the same reason many horror movies include laughs. A laugh releases tension that would otherwise become genuinely unpleasant if it continued uninterrupted.
Two, humor creates dynamics and introduces another color and dimension to a story.
Three, humor signifies authenticity. If you can laugh at yourself, it tells an audience you know yourself and that’s reassuring. It enhances your credibility.
Lisa: Does a memoir have to be funny to be successful?
Greg: No. But it has to be funny to be funny.
Lisa: What if someone doesn’t think they’re funny? How can they be funnier?
Greg: Some people have successfully suppressed their natural humor, but not many. Almost everyone is funny with some of their friends or family. A lot of people don’t think they’re ‘funny’ because they define funny too narrowly. If you laugh or make others laugh, you’re funny. Cultivating and channeling it is a little trickier.
How to be funnier is a vast topic. I’ve coached writers and taught writers and performers for 15 years in a workshop called The Comedian’s Way and I still haven’t come up with any hard and fast formulas. That’s partly because everyone is unique and, therefore, their sense of humor is unique.
There are a number of principles and techniques you can utilize to enhance your humor:
* One is surprise: especially a surprising attitude or unexpected contrast.
* Another is scale: Tiny and huge are funnier than mid-size, especially when they’re right next to each other. We can get into this more in the teleseminar.
Lisa: Scale makes me think hyperbole, exaggeration–especially when you use a metaphor to exaggerate. I like that. How about in how-to books? Is humor an important element?
Greg: It depends on the topic and the writer. In a lot of situations, a little humor goes a long way. Also, humor is usually highly situational: what’s funny will depend on the context.
One major piece of advice I have for any writer is: always keep a pen and paper handy. Try explaining your ideas out loud to friends or relatives who are already inclined to think you’re funny. If they laugh, write down what you just said verbatim. If you don’t remember what you just said, ask them. Or even better, use a voice recorder; then you can go back, listen and transcribe.